A longtime colleague of mine frequently reminds me of a reflection on leadership that impacted him when he first heard it nearly 20 years ago. I’m grateful to John for keeping the message in front of me since I’m prone to forgetting letters over the years. Here’s what influenced John.
In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain reports the navigational instructions he received from an experienced Mississippi riverboat captain. The captain explained that the look of the river constantly changes at night—depending on the moonlight.
On clear nights, shadows hide snags and sandbars. When nights are inky and black, all shores blur into straight lines. But, on foggy and misty nights, the banks appear to have no shape at all. The possibilities seemed endless to Twain—so endless that he despaired of so many variations to master.
Twain complained bitterly about the complexity of the river’s conditions: “Oh, don’t say any more, please! Have I got to learn…five hundred thousand different ways? If I tried to carry all that cargo in my head, it would make me stoop-shouldered.”
But the captain wisely quieted Twain’s frustration and replied: “You only learn the shape of the river, and you learn it with such absolute certainty that you can always steer by the shape that’s in your head, and never mind the one that’s before your eyes.” Learn the shape of the river. Steer by the lasting image that’s in your mind and heart rather than the changing perspectives before your eyes.
Leadership is about learning the shape of the river. Now before you stop reading, this isn’t one of those blogs that give you the top five practices of being a good leader. It’s odd to me how our culture is so engrossed with leadership. It’s as if everyone wants to lead somebody else, even if it means merely pointing without anyone following. Ironically, this leading by ourselves might be the first place that we all should begin with leadership: being conscious of our personalities, idiosyncrasies, motivations, and competencies.
Now, I would like to invite you into an exercise that helps to illustrate what it means to learn the shape of your river. Don’t worry; I’m not going to ask you to do anything that will embarrass you, at least that’s not my intent. I want you to stand up and push away from your desk, table, or wherever you’re sitting. Now cross your arms across your chest in the way that’s comfortable for you. Got it? Simple, right? That’s your river.
Ok, let me explain. Which arm did you cross first, the right or the left? Chances are you crossed with your dominant hand and arm without thinking. It was an autopilot response: you knew which arm to cross. Whichever arm you lead with is your river, the way that seems right to you.
Ok, now I want you to switch your arms. If your left is over your right, then change so that your right is over your left, and vice versa. And I bet you follow the same process all day with your dominant hand and arm, beginning when you take a shower. You start in the same place every time without thinking about it. And when you don’t something feels amiss.
This autopilot response is the shape of your river, which Twain discovered is easy to see in the daylight, but what happens when it gets dark, and things don't go as planned? It might feel as you’re leading and crossing with your non-dominate hand instead of the one that you’re comfortable with. When you’re challenged with juggling five different things in your day, what used to fit before no longer fits because things have shifted. It may help to learn the shape of your river and steer by the lasting way that’s in your minds and souls.
Yes, at times it will be a struggle. At times it will be overwhelming and frustrating. I do not deny this! But I’m convinced that we act, feel, and perform in the way that we see in the dark, and our rivers are continually changing in the night.
You will find what you are looking for: If you want to see the good, you’ll find it; if you're going to find the bad, you’ll find it. Likewise, if you're going to find mistrust, you’ll see that too. So what are you looking for? What is it that you need, but you will not voice it because you think that others will misunderstand you?
I’ve known countless people who shut down at this point of this type of conversation. It’s much easier look for answers in life than it is to consider that our purpose is ultimately to offer and receive invitations. Invitations which attempt to bring people into a dialogue, into a set of ideas, into a way of living, thinking and being that are new. An invitation to begin the journey of life-long learning, where we walk in another person’s shoes to see their perspective, seeking to first understand the other, instead of demanding to be recognized. It’s an invitation that welcomes people into a relationship to help others and then go the extra mile for someone in need. What’s the shape of your river?
On the Journey,
Technology and Digital Ministry